ANALYSIS AIR DATE: Dec. 30, 2013
GMO seeds grow into big fight on Kauai
Seeds are big business in Hawaii, where
large biotech companies develop genetically modified crops. Megan
Thompson reports on a battle being waged on the island of Kauai by
residents who say growing practices like pesticide use are hazardous to
This segment originally aired on the Oct. 20 edition of NewsHour Weekend.
our report first aired, the Kauai mayor vetoed the pesticide bill. But
the county council came back with a vote to override that veto, and the
bill is set to become law. Several other Hawaii counties have followed
Kauai's lead and have also passed or presented similar legislation for
genetically modified farming and pesticide use.
The Hawaiian island of Kauai
is known as the garden isle, luring hundreds of thousands of tourists to
its lush northern shores. But fewer make it down to the drier southwest
side, home to many native Hawaiians, who’ve lived here for
generations…and where farming has always been a way of life.
Today these fields are home to large biotech companies developing
Hawaii’s biggest agricultural product: seeds. Genetically modified
seeds, mostly corn, to be shipped back and grown on the mainland.
Those fields behind me
belong to Pioneer, one of the big seed companies here in Kauai. The
prevailing winds here blow out of the northeast. And the residents here
say that when those winds blow, they bring dust and pesticides from
these fields down into their neighborhoods and homes.
And some believe that’s making their children sick.
In 2007 I gave birth to my son.
And within a day we realized he was seizing. And we found that his
brain had hemorrhaged and he lost the whole, entire right frontal lobe.
Six-year-old Nakana Dickinson still
has frequent seizures, according to his mother, Randy-Li. After
consulting with a pediatric neurologist and blood specialist, she now
wonders if all of her son’s problems were caused by the location of
their home, in the valley just below the fields.
Paradise found: Hawaiian agriculture from sugar to seeds
And the only thing I
could think of is I lived here this whole time I'm pregnant. And I'm
getting this drift of dust constantly with pesticides.
You don't know for sure what the cause was of your son's illness.
No. And I-- and that's scary to me. And I can’t know for sure because they’re not disclosing anything to us.
A battle has erupted here in Kauai
over the seed farms. More than 150 residents have sued Pioneer.
Though Pioneer declined to comment on the litigation, the families
allege that dust and pesticides contaminated their homes. They’re also
seeking damages for lost property value.
Thousands of others on the island demonstrated…
This county council hearing is called to order.
And packed county council hearings
in support of a bill, passed just this week, imposing new rules on the
seed growers. It creates buffer zones around the fields and forces the
companies to disclose what pesticides they're using…when they're
spraying… and how much.
Several local doctors had expressed support for the legislation, citing serious health concerns.
There’s a strong anecdotal evidence
that there’s a statistically significant difference in the incidence of
cancer, asthma and birth defects.
One pediatrician wrote in an email
that he had observed rare heart defects in babies at a rate 10 times the
national average. But says years of epidemiological research would be
needed to establish the cause.
It's really quite simple. Tell us what
you're spraying, what you're growing, and then let us do a study to
determine whether people really are getting sick.
Local politician Gary Hooser
introduced the bill. He got involved in 2008 after a noxious odor sent
several children and a teacher at a school next to one of the fields to
the emergency room, complaining of dizziness and nausea.
This is serious, serious stuff that deserves our attention and deserves to be dealt with now.
the seed companies and their employees came out in force to fight the bill.
I want people to know that we are good people and we do the right thing.
the companies said they follow
government guidelines on pesticide spraying, and that revealing their
farming practices could make them less competitive. What’s more, as
some of the largest employers on the west side, they said the bill’s
other requirements could threaten their operations and the hundreds of
jobs they provide.
Most people on the west side is employed by the seed companies. We all live as a community, you know.
The four biotech companies in Kauai
own or lease more than 12,000 acres – close to 20 percent of the
island’s usable farmland. Their fields bump up against the nearby
Seeds are big business in the state of Hawaii, valued more than $240
million dollars a year; more than triple the second-largest commodity,
sugar. Mark Phillipson works for Syngenta, and is president of Hawaii’s
seed trade group, which represents Syngenta, BASF, Dow and Pioneer, a
subsidiary of DuPont.
MARK PHILLIPSON, HAWAII CROP IMPROVEMENT ASSOCIATION:
reason that we're here-- is the weather. It's-- there's no winter.
We're here-- 365 days a year. So, can get three crops a year. Whereas,
if we did this type of research or production on the mainland, we would
get one crop-- per year. So, something that would take-- ten-to-12
years to develop, we can do here in three-to-four years.
Phillipson says seed companies have
developed better and stronger plants, genetically modified to withstand
drought and pests.
Today almost 90% of the corn grown in the United States is
genetically modified…and according to one industry study, since 1996,
the technology has brought an economic benefit of more than 24 billion
dollars to America’s farmers.
This is a row of conventionally-bred
line of corn. / And you can see that there’s a lot of damage here to the
ear. That’s all from ear worm. This is the same line – same exact
line of corn, but it’s got our “Agrisure Viptera” traits in it and you
can see that there’s ear damage at all to this ear. It’s beautiful.
Even though the seed companies are
only growing crops for research purposes, they still use conventional
farming methods. That includes the application of several so-called
“restricted use pesticides” - chemicals regulated by the E.P.A. that can
only be handled by people with a special license.
We follow all the federal and state guidelines on pesticide use, and those guidelines are very strict and they're-- monitored.
We are very careful in how we apply
the pesticides. We, you know-- measure wind direction, wind speed.
It's-- not of any advantage for us to have things drift out anywhere.
Because of a new state registry on
pesticide sales, and the lawsuit against Pioneer, some information on
what’s being sprayed has started to come out. But the seed companies,
which invest billions of dollars in research and development, had been
largely reluctant to share more specifics.
On the general use pesticides that you
use on an annual basis, can any – are any of you willing to disclose
that amount? So I’ll take the silence as a no.
The people in community here have
been asking for a few years now to know what pesticides are being
sprayed by the seed companies here. How much, when, where. Why has
that information not been disclosed?
The reason is not so much there's trade secrets, but it's more of competitiveness.
Fast disclosure of those pesticide use will probably tell me the
ingredients that you're using that I might not be using. We each
represent a unique company that has a product in a competitive
There are a lot of people in this
community who say they’re getting sick. And they think it might be the
pesticides. What do you say to that?
Probably the first-- people in the community that would get sick would be our workers. And there's no indication of that.
Phillipson also points to a recent
study by the Hawaii Department of Health showing cancer rates are no
higher in Kauai than in other parts of the state…and other tests showing
air and water samples to be safe.
But critics accuse the companies of not following spraying guidelines
closely enough. Attorneys in the Pioneer lawsuit say this video they
shot shows pesticides blowing off a field near town. And even though
many of the pesticides are the same ones used by farmers in the Midwest
for example, critics point out they’re being applied during more months
of the year here.
How can you tell me I don’t have a right to know what they’re spraying?
And that’s why some residents including local doctors like Rick Goding believe more research is needed.
The thing about the physicians is, we
want to be very careful. And I think some of them are afraid to say
anything because they’re afraid to be perceived to be saying, “They’re
spraying, and therefore this is happening.” I’m not saying that. I
don’t know any physicians that are saying that.
What we are saying is, they are spraying. And we have some
problems. Can we find out more about what they’re spraying and can we
look at the possibility as to whether it’s got an effect on some of the
significant health problems we have in the community.
Even though that bill requiring the
seed companies to create buffer zones and disclose their spraying was
passed this week … at least one seed company said it’s exploring legal
options to block the legislation. So it could be a long time before
these residents get all the information that they’re looking for.
*Funding for this story provided by Pacific Islanders in Communications
A few weeks ago NewsHour Weekend reported on the debate surrounding genetically-modified seed farming on the island of Kauai, Hawaii
At that time the county council had just voted 6-1 in favor of a bill
that would create buffer zones around the fields and force the companies
to disclose what pesticides they're using, when they're spraying, and
how much. The bill would have also required companies to disclose what
GMOs were being used and produced by the growers.
Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho
Thursday vetoed the bill saying, "I have always said I agree with the
intent of this bill to provide for pesticide-use disclosure, create
meaningful buffer zones and conduct a study on the health and
environmental issues relating to pesticide use on Kauai...However, I
believe strongly that this bill is legally flawed. That being the case, I
had no choice but to veto."